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It’s Close, It’s Tough, but It’s Alabama

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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In a contest with no statistics or scoreboard, the Crimson Tide, dramatically, finished a single spot ahead.

Perhaps the toughest matchup of the college football season was played out in a board room: Alabama vs Ohio State, with resumes defining a different type of rivalry. The College Football Playoff Selection Committee hosted a hypothetical clash of the titans, featuring two powerful contenders with one common goal. In a contest with no statistics or scoreboard, the Crimson Tide, dramatically, finished a single spot ahead. Alabama's biggest win of the season, to date, has now come away from the field.     

First, understand that the postseason format is not perfect. It's certainly better and it's definitely fascinating, but major college football has four playoff slots for ten FBS conferences, plus independents. It goes without saying that there is significant variance in conference strength, non-league schedules and perceptions of how the year unfolds, not to mention a season's worth of chaotic results. Inequitably in evaluation is both considerable and unavoidable. Because of the abstract nature of the game's infrastructure, adhering to a specific set of principles can be difficult.

Acknowledging college football's paradox is a good starting point for the playoff.

With that in mind, Alabama was the right pick at four, even though the Crimson Tide did not participate in Championship Saturday. Alabama watched Auburn and Georgia play for a league title over the weekend and was, in retrospect, "rewarded" for losing the Iron Bowl and not having to play an extra game against a top foe. It's a hard notion to process, but one that exists in today's landscape. In their last game, the Crimson Tide were not better than their opponent; over the duration of the entire year, however, their resume was better than the other contenders. Nick Saban's squad is one of the game's four best teams.   

Initially, it's a mistake to immediately assume that being second in one's division means you can't be in the top four nationally. It may, in fact, be somewhat counter-intuitive; competing against other elite teams should be a contextual positive, not a negative, as a contender's entire profile is considered. Proximity, essentially, shouldn't be an outright eliminator the way things are currently structured. Just as who you beat shapes who you are, who you lose to does as well. The concept of the "four best teams" is not mutually exclusive with competitional ties.

It doesn't seem right to singularly count one hard-fought loss to the wrong team, especially if it is an an elite team, as more than just one loss.

Countless factors, in all of this, have to be examined. When looking at teams with different records, that sentiment is only magnified. Within the paradigm of Alabama vs Ohio State, the Crimson Tide lost once while the Buckeyes lost twice, including by 31 at Iowa. Had the Buckeyes not lost in Iowa City, or perhaps even if they had lost but close, the weight of an impressive Big Ten Championship would count more. If a league title is considered to be the end-all-be-all, candidates beyond just Ohio State would have a strong argument.

Philosophically, there has to be a sliding scale on the meritability of a conference crown. At the very least, such a standard completely overlooks a significant portion of the regular season; in theory, a team could go 0-4 outside of league play and still win a conference title. Furthermore, such an identifier would lessen the significance of cross-division pairings that don't have direct head-to-head divisional implications. While a league championship has to matter, and matter a lot, a playoff pool shouldn't be completely decided by, potentially, six or seven games alone.

The Alabama-Ohio State discrepancy is obviously not as drastic as the aforementioned set of circumstances, but the same premise is in play. Unfortunately, there is no answer that is truly consistent on all fronts. That said, what happened on Sunday isn't unprecedented; a year ago, the Buckeyes made the College Football Playoff despite not playing in the Big Ten Championship Game. Simply put, each season is its own story with a completely unique set of circumstances and, correspondingly, standards for the final four. 

This has not necessarily been a vintage Crimson Tide team, a relative measure that shouldn't count against Alabama. Remember, the assessment of the Crimson Tide must be done in relation to other contenders, not to past versions of themselves. There isn't a true signature victory on the schedule, though Alabama did beat three nationally-ranked teams: Florida State, LSU and Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide also topped nine-win Fresno State. Going back to week one, the win over the Seminoles, who had a healthy Deondre Francois before struggling to 6-6, is impossible to accurately value. Regardless, this is a team that has looked the part.    

Even if it doesn't quite seem like it, Aabama has still been dominant, at times incomparably so. The Crimson Tide rank 12th nationally in scoring offense, ahead of the likes of Louisville, South Florida and Oregon, and lead the nation in scoring defense. Alabama has defeated their opponents by an average score of 39.1 to 11.5, a difference of 27.6 points per game. Alabama's 2015 national championship team finished with a +20 margin. For point of reference, Ohio State has won games by a score of 42.5 to 19.9, an average of 22.6 points.

Arguments can made on all sides and there are plenty of compelling points to go around. Good lucking finding a narrative that isn't partially-flawed. In a perfect world, the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes would play for a spot in the final field. Maybe one day, an expanded playoff awaits. For now, though, this showdown had to occur in simulation, with Alabama as the ever-so-narrow victor.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports